For this blog, I thought I’d post the content of the speech I was privileged enough to give in Westminster last week, an introduction to the ‘Response for Nature’ report.
Nearly a thousand years ago, one of William the Conqueror’s officials came to Westminster and found enough meadows to keep 11 plough teams busy, as well as enough woodland to support 100 pigs (this is not intended as biting satire). His findings were recorded in the Domesday Book, the king’s attempt to survey his new country and assess its value. It was a spot-check on the financial health of the nation.
In 2013 Sir David Attenborough also stood in Westminster to present its modern equivalent – almost a Domesday Book of wildlife. They called the report that followed The State of Nature. It was a health check on our wildlife.
David Attenborough had his own surveyors for the 21st Century Domesday. They came from 25 conservation organisations, small and large, most of them represented here today, and from many more besides. This was based on a truly stupendous amount of recording by volunteers.
Seventeen thousand birdwatchers had trampled over about a quarter of the land surface of the British Isles, gathering data. Countless botanists entered more than nine million plant records. In all, information was available for in excess of 3,000 species, recording everything from pipistrelles to periwinkles, natterjacks to nightingales, Bloody Crane’s Bill to Bristly Ox Tongue, and let’s not forget the horrid ground weaver spider. I’m not describing it, that’s its actual name.
That representative sample on land and by sea was enough for us to gauge just how well our nature was doing. Let me draw out the top line figures and please take a moment to consider their significance:
• 60% – nearly two thirds of the species assessed – were found to be in decline. Almost a third of those were in serious decline.
• Numbers for conservation priority species had, overall, fallen by 77% in the previous 40 years, with little sign of recovery.
• Of more than 6,000 species assessed using modern Red List criteria, more than one in ten are thought to be in danger of extinction in the UK.
These are sobering, shocking statistics. One of our most eminent naturalists, Cambridge University professor Andrew Balmford, writes that we are the last generation that can avoid mass extinction. He said: “I think we have, at most, one generation left to avoid such an appalling prospect”. So that’s it. We can’t hide from this issue. We can’t leave it to our children or our grandchildren to sort this out. We are nature’s last chance.
The State of Nature report shows where we are. Now we need a plan for where we should go. The document I have the privilege to launch today starts us on that long road.
So this is what today is all about – it’s called Response for Nature: England. This booklet, the summary of a much bigger report – draws together the views of more than 130 experts in the field. These experts are “conservation practitioners”; having a working knowledge of environmental policy. They have been pulled in from NGOs, government agencies, and independent conservation agencies to comment, and I’m delighted that many of them have joined us here this evening, we owe you a debt of gratitude. Me more than most, as I have been flagrantly plagiarising the research of proper scientists for my programmes for the last sixteen years. You all pay my mortgage!
In a painstaking process, which took over a year, the practitioners were asked – quite simply – how are things working for nature at the moment? And what, if anything, needs to change to make things better?
All of that knowledge, cooperation and eagerness to put things right has been distilled and brought together in this document. This then is our blueprint for the future here in England. This is the moment when NGOs, people in government, and civil servants alike have the opportunity to work together with a clear purpose.
While this is going on in England, there are companion documents being launched by our counterparts in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, laying out their own parallel paths ahead. Each country is working towards the same goal. In the next phase of this project, it will be time to turn to the business world, to explore ways in which industry and commerce can work with us to turn the fortunes of nature around.
There is no doubt that the public is behind us. Not just the six and a half million members that the organisations represented here have between them. An independent survey showed that 88% of the UK population – of the whole population – believe that biodiversity – the variety of life – is indispensable in the production of our food, fuel and medicine. Many people may not know that bumblebees and other pollinators contribute over £690 million to the economy every year in ecosystem services. But they do know that bees pollinate crops. Bees mean food on your plate.
Some 90% of the population tells us that our wellbeing and quality of life are based on nature. I’ll say more about that later.
And 94 % – in other words, practically everyone – tell us that we have a moral obligation to halt biodiversity loss. We can all marvel at a gambolling dolphin we can be won over by a diving gannet, the fluted song of a blackbird or a swooping swift, and enjoy its beauty for beauty’s sake, but there is an ethical dimension to conservation too, and a growing awareness that we are using up our natural capital at the expense of future generations.
This was put most eloquently more than 150 years ago by a Scottish emigrant to the US by the name of John Muir. A great explorer, pioneer, visionary and a founder figure in the creation of America’s National Parks, John Muir wrote about the pillaging of America’s landscapes that he saw around him, using words that have an eerie resonance today: “a grand harvest was reaped every year while nobody sowed.”
The figures I quoted from the survey demonstrate the strength of feeling among the public: people understand that nature makes a massive contribution to the true wealth of our nation. If such a powerful public endorsement is not a mandate for action, then I don’t know what is.
So what must we do? Where do we go from here? This document lists 10 points for all of us to act upon. I won’t go through all of them here, but I will pick up on just some of the key issues.
The first brings good news. The Government has recognised that it must do something. It has promised to publish, in the near future, a 25-year plan, not just to halt biodiversity losses, but to restore wildlife and bring nature back into all of our lives.
You can read in here about the partnership’s vision of where we should be by the year 2040, twenty-five years from now. We must have, to quote: “a country richer in nature on land and at sea – with healthy habitats, thriving species and more protection for a network of special places”. We should have: “people connected to nature, appreciating wildlife and wild places, and benefitting from the health, wealth and prosperity they can provide.”
Twenty-five years. It’s a significant number for me. I spent my summer filming a series called Big Blue Live in California. Twenty-five years ago a previously dead defunct bay where nothing lived was declared a marine sanctuary. Today, Monterey Bay is one of the world’s greatest natural marvels, Even mighty blue whales have returned, at which I got so excited I nearly pushed a local biologist overboard. There are fish, great whales, dolphins and seals in unparalleled abundance. Proof, REAL proof in the form of millions of tonnes of scales and blubber that conservation, protection, human care really does work. They wrecked it, then they protected it, and it came back. And if the Americans can manage something so magnificent… surely we can too?
The prospect that we Brits could achieve things on such a scale thrills me. I’ve just got engaged, and such a big life event sets you thinking. The thought that my kids could go out into the British countryside, and see not just the wonders I see today, but BETTER… surely that has to be our greatest motivation.
But let’s be realistic about how this challenge must be tackled. This can’t be a Government target for action that’s simply hived off to a single, hard-pressed department in Whitehall. It must run as a matter of course through every department, from Defra to the Treasury. Every department needs to understand that restoring nature will be a key solution to some of our most pressing social, environmental and economic problems. Every individual, from top to bottom, needs to embrace it, and act on it.
If you are not familiar with some of the subjects raised in this document, then you might be surprised by some of the findings. For example, the NGOs are calling for the Government to “defend and implement the laws that conserve nature”. And, of course, you would expect them to say that.
But even as I speak, a small minority in the European Parliament is pushing for the most important laws of all – the Nature Directives that safeguard species and special places – to be watered down or merged. The inference is that legislation is hampering business with bureaucrats and red tape. That is simply not true. In fact, careful research has shown quite the opposite! The EU Nature Directives are actually good for nature, good for people and good for business. For the sake of all three, they should be strengthened, not weakened.
The final issue that I want to address – and one that is particularly dear to my own heart – is one that is crippling all levels of society. A United Nations document provided the big picture. It said: “It is in our environment where we find recreation, health and solace, and in which our culture finds its roots and sense of place”. But for an increasing number of people, that’s simply not happening. We’re losing touch with nature. We are fast becoming a sick society… and it’s costing us money. Lots of money.
More than half of all adults in the UK are physically inactive, and overweight or obese, costing the economy some £20billion every year in treatment and time off through sickness. One in four adults suffer from mental health problems in the UK. The government spends on average £100billion trying to tackle the problem and help those suffering.
But there genuinely is a panacea for these ills… and it’s free. It’s nature. Peer-reviewed science proves it: given easy access to nature, people are three times more likely to participate in physical activity and 40% less likely to become overweight or obese. And if that’s not enough, “People living near quality green space, full of wildlife and thriving habitats, are twice as likely to report low psychological distress as those living near low quality open spaces.” This is something I see all the time. We get letters every single week from parents or teachers of children suffering with autism or ADHD who have found a way to connect with the world through wildlife. I’ve seen countless ‘problem’ ‘unreachable’ young people with bright eyes and smiles, enthused by simply riding their first wave, pond dipping or rock pooling, and adults suffering from depression who’ve sought solace in birdwatching or walking in our wild places. Take these apocryphal reports and extrapolate them to a national scale, and we have a powerful force; a resource that we are simply not making the most of. We’re fed a depressing stereotype of vile juveniles plugged into their laptops and smartphones, and becoming automatons, but I don’t see that. I am lucky enough to meet young people who have discovered the outdoors and nature and they have an energy and enthusiasm that is infectious, even overwhelming. They think they can change the world. I believe they’re right.
It’s imperative that we, understand and learn from all this. And it’s essential that our children benefit too. Natural England produced a report more than five years ago, which said that fewer than one in 10 children regularly play in wild places, compared to just half a generation ago. You can bet things haven’t improved since. We want learning to care for the environment to be enshrined in law, to be a compulsory part of a child’s education at school, so that we, as a society, have a legal duty as well as a desire to connect children with nature. That just has to happen.
So now we are at a crossroads. A critical point. But this is a time for great optimism. Everyone in this room has the power to do something about this. It’s truly awesome being in the presence of so many movers and shakers in conservation. I can practically feel the ground shifting beneath my feet. Although of course that may just be from the fracking!!!!!
To the government, I say – we are waiting for you to read this report, take note and act on its recommendations. Come back with the details of your 25-year plan. People and nature need you to make it a great one.
And to everyone in this room, I say be ready and prepared to work in partnership to make things happen. We are the last generation who can avoid mass extinction. Nature needs our help, and we need nature more than we will ever realise, let’s not leave it too late to turn the tide.
Steve Backshall will be embarking on his nationwide ‘Wild World’ theatre tour from 15 October – 15 November. To book tickets please visit http://www.stevebackshall.com/tour.php
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